“seventy times seven.” Forgiveness: “77” or “70 times 7?” The versions differ. The King James Version says, “Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” In contrast, the NIV says: “Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.’”
Although the Greek reads in a way that means seventy times seven in regular Greek, Matthew 18:22 may not be “regular” Greek. The Greek in Matthew 18:22 is the exact wording of the Septuagint (LXX) of Genesis 4:24, where Lamech is bragging to his wives about the vengeance he will take on his enemies: “77” times. The Hebrew text of Genesis 4:24 is very clear: 77 times, and very noted linguists assert that the accepted translation of the LXX came into Greek usage such that what in classical Greek meant “70 times 7,” in this biblical context of revenge and forgiveness it meant “77.” If this is the case, Jesus was contrasting the vengeful Lamech, who stated he would avenge himself “77 times” with the behavior of a godly person, who should forgive “77 times.” If the allusion is to Lamech, it forces us to be forgiving, but also to face the end of our forgiving. Will we act like the vengeful Lamech, willing to take vengeance on those we will not forgive?
Scholars who assert that the number should be “70 times 7” play down the association with Lamech and assert that the standard reading of the Greek should apply here. Some argue that “77 times” is not enough, and that the larger figure, 70 times 7, is a hyperbole (exaggeration), which was common in oriental thought. In that case, the hyperbole would be simply making the point that all the forgiving we can do is not enough—we must keep on forgiving.
Michael Hall (unpublished manuscript) pointed out that there were 70 periods of 7 in Daniel 9:24, from the going forth of the commandment to restore Jerusalem until the Messiah came and set up the Millennial Kingdom. Thus, he suggested that “70 times 7” was a veiled way of saying, “until the Millennial Kingdom.” If that is the case, then Jesus told us to forgive and forgive until this age of sin is over and he sets up his kingdom on earth. Mitigating against that idea are the number of scriptures showing that sin and forgiveness will still be necessary in the Messianic Age. Although Christ will reign, he will rule with a rod of iron, and although he, and the judges he appoints, will judge justly, they will still have to “settle disputes for many peoples” (Isa. 2:4). Furthermore, the existence of the Temple and the sin offering (Ezek. 43:19ff) show that mankind will still make mistakes and need forgiveness.
There is a good reason why scholars are in profound disagreement about this verse: the real meaning is not clear. If we had the original Hebrew or Aramaic that Jesus was speaking we could be sure, but we do not have them. It could also be argued that Jesus knowingly used a number that was unclear, driving us to both conclusions at the same time: by hyperbole, we should always forgive people, and by comparison, when we refuse to forgive any more, we become like ungodly Lamech who boasted of his revenge. However, there is no way to know that either.